A Journey To Lampedusa. How The Pearl of the Mediterranean Sea Became a Huge Army Camp

Credit: Valerio Nicolosi


Valerio Nicolosi, February 12th, 2019

Militarization is evident and the drop in landings has not been followed by a reduction in security personnel, which today are supernumerary if compared to real needs.

The sun is warm despite being February, along a desolate via Roma you could shoot a western movie. Lampedusa – for those who know the summer version of this island, is unrecognisable. This little land that detached itself from the African plate, has now become a bridge in the middle of the Mediterranean sea in which many people that are different and often far from each other, have found shelter.

One of these is Mediterranean Hope, a project of the FCEI that over the last five years has arranged a working unit a few hundred meters from the port of Lampedusa. Many volunteers have been part of this unit, especially young and very young operators who have made themselves available for welcoming migrants and reporting about what is not working.

I meet Alberto Mallardo in one of the few cafés still open in Via Roma. As member of this project, Mr. Mallardo has been living in Lampedusa over the last 4 years. During these years we have met many times. Mr.Mallardo is one of those people that you call to verify a news about the area.

“We know that on December 21st a raft from Zuwara left, there were a hundred people on board, of which 84 were Eritreans, others from Bangladesh and perhaps from the Egyptians. In total there were 20 women and 5 children. We have been informed by some relatives of the people who were on board asking if we had information, but we did not know anything. We have contacted all Italian ports, but no Eritrean citizens have arrived, we do not know what happened to them.” Mr. Mallardo said.

“We were also in contact with the Open Arms vessels, which in those days was in the Central Mediterranean sea and right on December 21st helped 313 people. Neither did they know anything. Even in the Libyan newspapers there was no reference to rescue operations recently carried out as as well as by the Tripoli Coast Guard. Obviously, the fear was that these people perished at sea.”

The beginning of our conversation made us have a pit of our stomach. “I knew that the Eritrean community in Italy was looking for a hundred people that left before Christmas. I had been contacted on December 26th since I  was on the vessel Astral and we were sailing nearby the Open Arms. We checked but nothing came out between the signals and we were too far away to think about recovering a rubber boat of maximum 10 meters in a piece of sea of hundreds of miles.”

Although I knew the story, the words of Alberto were like being attacked from all sides and you cannot see them. Every word was a blow and when he went over “swallowed” I went KO.

We rest for a while, even Mr. Mallardo is tired, and we go on how his job has changed over the last years. “In 2015, there were 23,000 people a year, now 3,000 have been landing. It is not just a matter of numbers, but it is about how the island has changed.” Mr.Mallardo said.

“When these people arrived in Lampedusa, it was like the beginning of a new life, they did not perish during the African route or at sea. This was the ticket to entry Europe. Today, Lampedusa has become a frontier, a place of rejection. Lampeduda has gradually changed its role from a life anchor, a safe harbour in the middle of the Mediterranean sea, a gateway to Europe. Today, living here is more difficult. The fact that we are aware of hundreds of people perishing a few kilometres off Lampedusa gives us a sense of deep helplessness.

Militarization is there for all to see. The pearl of the Mediterranean sea has become a huge army camp. In winter, it is desolate and then even more evident. Even this café where we are now, in a short time has seen a parade of uniforms and different degrees. The reduction of landings has not entailed a reduction in security personnel and created a supernumerary presence compared to real needs. Although Lampedusa has become marginal in the activity of Sar (search and rescue) operations, over the last year the spontaneous landings have increased.” Mr. Mallardo said.

“The majority of these people come from Tunisia, which is near here. From 2018 to date, in Lampedusa there were about 8/9 thousand landings, it is a route that has been there for decades and is completely different from the one that starts from Libya. They are small wooden boats, they do not have many people on board and they arrive directly here or in Sicily.”

He went on with his story, while walking along via Roma to reach the Mediterranean Hope .  He told me a story that has disorient me since the scenario seems to be very  far from the one described by the director Gianfranco Rosi in the documentary Fuocoammare.

“The migration phenomenon has always been managed with two keys approaches: the humanitarian and security one. Right in Lampedusa we have often seen how these two readings have intertwined with each other. On one side the rescue operations of the Coast Guard, which everyone praised, and on the other side the military ships, whose objective was to protect boundaries and not people.”

“With the NGOs everything was very clear, from the beginning the population welcomed them with great enthusiasm. The people from Lampedusa are seafarers and opened their doors to those who had come from all over Europe to rescue at sea. On the other hand the institutions  which have always seen NGOs with great concern that over time have turned into a growing tension, culminated with the seizure of the Iuventa boat . I was there and that event was a representation of the frontier and the power of the State. Thirty vehicles between armoured vehicles and police cars, dozens of riot policemen surrounding the vessel. Something that has never seen happened in Lampedusa.”

The sun went down, that pleasant illusion of spring vanished, and winter was back. In the office of this FCEI project I met Silvia Turati, a girl that I met two years ago in Lebanon while I was following the humanitarian corridors project.

When I saw Silvia, I needed a few seconds to remind her. It was not like I did not recognize her, but if my mind was a computer, she would be stored in the “Lebanon-Syria” and not “Lampedusa” file. We have been still talking about migrant people, but obviously it was a totally different context. Silvia told me that this was why she was on the island, to “detach” from Beirut and from the refugee camps that we toured together and where she has been working for over two and a half years. The burnout in this work is always possible and changing the environment, detaching, resting is fundamental. Unfortunately, my interest in the project of humanitarian corridors brings her back, at least with my head, to Lebanon.

“Starting from the beginning of the project put in place by the FCEI and the Community of Sant’Egidio, we have brought 1,403 people to Italy safely and with a system of reception and integration that protects people. I think it’s a great merit of this project,” Silvia said.

Silvia’s smile leaves no doubt, it is a merit. “The selection phase is very long. While we are in the refugee camps to provide medical assistance, we meet the NGOs working on site and the refugee families. Then, we collect the requests and begin to make many meetings with those who ask to enter the project. We must understand if they are in a position to settle in and integrate with the welcoming communities.”

The beauty of this project  -so to say- lies in the double work. On the one hand the Syrian families who were forced to flee and on the other one the communities ready to welcome them. While drinking a coffee, I take this opportunity to ask something about the families I met in the refugee camp of Tel Abbas: “Some of them are in Italy, especially in the north. They are fine and integrated.” Silvia said.

At that point, however, her smile changed a little, “Although the project has been confirmed and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs has made available another thousand humanitarian visas, we have started to have problems with the Ministry of the Interior. Towards the end of 2017 the answers to our requests were slower, sometimes not accepted. This is the only way to get people safely, the alternative is out there.”

The statement is lapidary and brings us back to where we are, in the middle of the Mediterranean sea on a very small island of 20 square kilometres that has been a key point for migratory routes over the last years. We finished our coffee and the temperature drop down. We had just a little time to run towards the Isola dei Conigli and enjoy an amazing sunset, remembering that Lampedusa is the gateway to Europe and also its pearl.